The United States Navy yesterday sent a guided missile destroyer within 12 miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea where China has built an airstrip which prompted China to scramble fighter jets and dispatch warships to “expel” the American ship.
A Pentagon statement reads that, “USS William P. Lawrence exercised the right of innocent passage while transiting inside 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, a high-tide feature that is occupied by China but also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam”.
The statement also added that,”This operation challenged attempts by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim, contrary to international law”.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12 nautical miles is considered the limit at which a nation’s rule extends off its shores. The Law of the Sea defines “innocent passage” as a transit in which a ship does not conduct any military, commercial or research activities.
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The Pentagon statement said the United States did not notify any of the countries involved about the destroyer’s transit in advance.
Chinese vessels challenged the Lawrence a dozen times by radio, a United States official said, but the Chinese ships did not come as close to the U.S. ship as they had during previous times the United States sent ships through waters near disputed islands, including Fiery Cross Reef, which is in the Spratly Islands.
The Pentagon statement said, “This operation demonstrates, as President Obama has stated, that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe”.
The Chinese Defense Ministry reacted defiantly, “The unauthorized entry by the U.S. warship into waters near China’s Nansha Islands (which China calls the Spratlys) was an act of serious provocation,” Senior Col. Yang Yujun, spokesman for China’s Defense Ministry, said in a statement.
China dispatched two J-11 fighter jets, a Y-8 warning aircraft and three warships, a guided missile destroyer, a guided missile frigate and a frigate, to the area, Yang said.